One of the great pleasures in researching our sacred springs is the field work. In a world where the internet is said to have all the answers and this blog is just as responsible for forwarding the information, it might be surprising to find that not all the information is available. As I am close to completing my work on Staffordshire Holy Wells and the weather is getting nicer I thought it as a good idea to share one of the more interesting sites.
A few years back at the beginning of my Staffordshire research I came across a site a Wombourne. The site according to Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells (1893) was a spring was ‘known by the name of “Our Lady’s Well” or “Lady Well”. Hope (1893) states:
“Another famous local well, which has fortunately escaped the destructive hand of time, is that near Wombourne, known by the name of Our Lady’s Well, or Lady Well. It is cut out of the solid rock, which crops out at the top of a lofty hill, situate between Wombourne and Lower Fenn. The well is of considerable antiquity, and several species of cryptogrammic plants give to the surface of the stone a venerable appearance. It is supposed to have been sacred to the virgin in mediæval times, and its waters to have possessed curative properties. Here, ages ago, a holy hermit is said to have dwelt, and to have been visited by many persons in search of consolation and instruction. The well is still a favourite resort of local pleasure-seekers, who go to drink of the cooling and delicious beverage, and ruralize in the adjacent wood.”
Of course in the last 130 odd years quite a lot has happened. Wells drained, filled in or absorbed into the domestic supply. Land urbanised, agriculture changes boundaries and forests torn from the landscape…so it can be very unlikely for a well to survive.
The first place to look is always the current ordnance survey map however, no well is marked on the current OS one but the name Lady Well Wood is still marked. This concurs with the field-name Ladywell Hill on the 1840 Tithe map. Being a wood is a good sign as the pressures of building and agriculture are less likely to have had an impact. Better still on the 1883 OS map W is marked beneath Ladywell cottages on the escarpment. However, there might propose an issue. Clearly the cottages were built to utilise the water as a domestic source. Such an activity can often result in destruction as the source is tanked and modernised. I hoped for the best.
There appeared to be a footpath which based close enough, if the land was not enclosed to be useful. However, it could not be seen whether the land was enclosed in someone’s garden. This path lay up Orton Lane beside a house called Orton Springs house (although it is not signed) which passes up the hill. The name sounded promising but I think it was more likely woodland spring rather than water spring.
I climbed the hill which provided great views of the valley. Taking a right hand path I followed it as it appeared to lead to what could be the cottages. As moved closer it was very evident there were not any cottages, but the foundations were to be seen by the path. Was the well similarly destroyed? Looking at the 1883 OS the well appeared to be down the slope from them and my eye was cast that way. A few yards away was something which did not fit into the general scene, for the hill was covered by a mix of deciduous trees but there in front was a yew. A solitary yew. This appeared to be very significant was this where the well was?
I scrambled down a muddy slope, nearly losing my footing at one point and got closer to the yew. The yew was growing romantically on a rocky ledge, the only rocky ledge I could see, I scrambled closer and could see some evidence of water flowing from beneath the rocky ledge. There was definitely some water source here but would be a brick municipal structure, a simple spring or something a bit more interesting.
Peering around the rock, the spring appeared to flow into a small square brick built chamber, which appeared to probably date from before the time of Hope’s account. It was full of clear water, the stream is currently constant running from a fissure in the rock; around it are the cryptogrammic plants, mosses, growing in profusion. The spring over fills the chamber and forms a small stream which flows down the hillside. A number of names, possibly dating back from Hope’s time are carved into the rock and sadly the site has fallen afoul of graffiti artists.
A lost pagan site?
A lot of commentators construct the view that many Christian sites derive from pagan ones. Sadly, the evidence is lacking. However, here I was struck by the circumstantial evidence which appeared to point in the direction of the well being depicted to a female deity. The first piece of evidence is perhaps the name of the settlement, Wombourne, deriving from bourne meaning a stream or river but the first bit is more elusive, officially it derives from ‘valley’ but could it have a more feminine origin? Could this be the spring entering from the mother earth’s womb? The only problem being that the wom brook, thought to be the origin of the name is somewhere else. Interestingly, the VCH (1908–1984) suggest that this site is to be identified with a Wodewelle recorded near Orton in the thirteenth century, but this might easily have been a different well. If it is the same of course the name easily derived from wood, which explains its location, however it might be from Woden? Unlikely though. The second piece of evidence is the presence of the Yew tree with its roots entering the spring. Neo-pagans would see it as Yggdrasil, the sacred tree and it’s certainly significant as it is the only one, although Wombourne is a Saxon not Norse foundation. Yews were also sacred to the Celts as well. The third piece of evidence is that a holy hermit lived there, perhaps descending from some pagan wise man? The fourth that the festivities were possibly ancient in nature although Hope give no clues on dates and what actually went on.
Whatever the conjecture, the Lady’s Well is a great survival and a taster of what fascinating sites exist in the county. My work on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire is hopefully out this year!